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What is SEO?

These days, it seems as if every other web designer (and website spammer) is advertising their SEO services, promising to get your site to the top of Google’s search results. So what exactly is SEO, and what can it do for you? We’ve previously discussed white hat vs black hat SEO, SEO vs SEM, and the importance of links (with follow-up here and here), but the topic changes so quickly that it’s worth following up.

For as long as there have been search engines, there has been search engine optimization: trying to get your website to the top of the results. Often, this was a battle between the search engines and the web designers – a technique (such as meta keywords) would be abused (keyword spam) and then discounted by the search engines (mostly Google). Back when Google’s algorithm and results only changed a few times per year, a new technique could make a lot of money even if it only worked until the next Google update. These days, with Google constantly rolling out new updates, abusive (or black hat) techniques only work until Google devises an algorithmic way around them.
This isn’t to say that SEO is a bad thing. Google actively encourages white hat SEO, where you optimize your site to create the best possible experience for both users and search engine spiders; they even provide a list of webmaster guidelines to help you. Having a site that loads quickly, for example, and an easy to use navigation structure, can boost your search engine ranking. As more people have abused links, getting many thousands of links from as many places as possible, Google has put more emphasis on trusted sites: one link from an authoritative site in your niche can be worth more than many, many links from random websites.
These days, it’s possible for a page to rank for a term that doesn’t appear anywhere on it, or in the anchor text of any links going to that page. How? Google knows that various terms are related, so it can figure out that, for example, if your page ranks highly for “dog vets”, “dog medicine”, and “dog exercise”, then it’s probably also relevant to the search “dog health”. At the same time, while they might not be able to tell whether or not you’re using excellent grammar, search engine spiders can look for key words that indicate authoritative speech on a topic; for example, if most of the authoritative pages on a topic use keyword X, then whether or not I use keyword X can be an indicator as to whether or not I’m an expert on the topic. The goal (which so far has had mixed success) is to promote pages written by people who really are (or at least, sound like) experts on the topic, under the assumption that those are most likely to be useful. We’ll come back to this topic in another article, when we talk about Google+.
The takeaway is that, while the most effective techniques change year to year (and even day to day) the key to having a firm foundation for top rankings is to build a clean, easy to use site that provides your readers with the information they’re looking for. Keeping up with the latest design techniques and tools is a full-time job in itself, but it helps to create the great user experience that readers and search engines love.